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The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul

by Patrick French

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This authorized study of Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul examines his difficult early life as a child of Indian parents in colonial Trinidad, his Oxford education, the depression that marked his life in England, his complex personal life and romantic relationships, and his pursuit of becoming a great writer.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
What a shitbag! Naipaul thrives on being a controversialist. This is sage. The author finds the soft areas in our hypocrisies about race and nation states. Naipaul exploits such. Quoting Mr. French, Naipaul's prose remains pellucid. His incorporation of these anxieties is an achievement. The Nobel Laureate's manipulation of such is well past the suspect.

I have yet to broach the personal life of Vidia. Not to wax sensationalist, I couldn’t make up this shit.
( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
Great writers are not always great men. In fact, it has been claimed that The world is what it is. The authorized biography of V.S. Naipaul "reveals the true monster in V. S. Naipaul". Indeed, reading this biography you will experience a staggering mount of surprise, as you gradually realize what an awful person V. S. Naipaul obviously is. His abominable behaviour is described in so much detail and at such length, that one wonders whether or not Naipaul has ever considered retracting his authorization. The facts about the personal life of V. S. Naipaul that are revealed are truly shocking.

Patrick French has written an excellent biography of V. S. Naipaul. It is all there, for all to see. Without any moralizing comments, which essentially shows that the biographer is a man of his time. Perhaps that is what appealed to V. S. Naipaul in working with Patrick French as his biographer, as it is clearly not only a display of great skill, but also of great courage, for a relatively young biographer to write such a daring book about a Nobel Prize winner.

It is obvious, that V. S. Naipaul, the man, has a very unpleasant side to his character. He is shown to drop his friends, even claim they never were his friends, or speak evil about the behind their backs, while his relations with women raise eyebrows in most observers. The biographer neither comments, nor asks the women for their point of view. To a very large extent, Naipaul is described as an essentially very selfish, and self-centred personality, but the biography also shows that perhaps that was needed for the worm to crawl out of the mud. The women he used, after all, gave themselves to him. It is almost as if Naipaul is never out of the role of the author, and that both in his work and in the world he is the creator. For a better understanding of this contradiction, it may be useful to read Naipaul's A writer's people. Ways of looking and feeling, a collection of autobiographical essays, which came out in the same year as the biography.

The history of Naipaul's authorship, from the humble beginnings, coming to London and start plodding at a career in writing are all meticulously described, in the right amount of detail for the reader to remain fully engaged. Coming from the perifery of empire, Naipaul had a difficult start to find his niche in British literature, and from thence develop into a world class writer. This was possible, as he gradually realized and turned towards his Indian roots, and wrote his first book about India, An Area of Darkness. This book is a very direct, frontal attack on India, describing the country in such negative terms that it was banned.

According to French, the great strength of Naipaul is that he developed an entirely personal style, and with forceful callousness vent his opinion or view on anything, particularly in racial and post-colonial matters. Thus, Naipaul made himself eyed suspiciously by people from developing countries all over the world, as he bluntly exposed the way many immigrants, and former colonial people pay lip service to independence, but blame former colonizers for their own weaknesses and corruption, relinquishing their responsibility behind a smoke screen of victimhood. This was an unheard of view, particularly in the 1960s, when academia began embracing and pampering all abused minorities.

Long before the desastrous developments at the turn of the century, V.S. Naipaul turned to study Islam, and noticed the sprouting of Moslem fundamentalism, in several travelogues he wrote, exploring the Moslem diaspora in South and Southeast Asia.

Readers who can separate the man from his work, will find The world is what it is. The authorized biography of V.S. Naipaul a very biography. The description of the development of his literary oevre, shows Naipaul as a visionary, in terms of authorship, a man ahead of his time, perhaps even by such a great measure that the ultimate significance of his work is still not clear to contemporary readers. ( )
1 vote edwinbcn | Jan 4, 2015 |
Unpretentious and yet fascinating as the world of a brilliant, small son of Indian migrants comes to terms - or does he? - with the world as he sees it. Not only does it open windows to the old colonial times, but also to Indian and specifically Hindu culture outside the subcontinent. The personal interactions amongst the strong women amongst his forebears [probably dishonored Brahmin folk, who try to get by outside the system]. The biographer manages to take up the Naipaul's novels convincingly and makes for a enchanting read.
One things Patrick French works out very well is how hard it is to be a writer and that it takes tremendous discipline to do the one thing that really counts in this regard: "To write well." He mastery of English, his unique way of looking at things and then perhaps his outrages views [politically not correct one little bit!] all make for a stimulating read - that's for sure and I think its helpful to come to terms with ones prejudices and other preconceived ideologies. ( )
  Wilhelm_Weber | Apr 9, 2011 |
Vidiadhar Surajprasad (V.S.) Naipaul (1932-), the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature, is one of the most highly regarded authors of the 20th century. He was born in Trinidad, and his ancestors were part of the Indian migration to this Caribbean island in the 19th century. He was awarded a scholarship to Oxford in 1950, where he met his wife, the former Patricia Hale. After his graduation he dedicated his life to becoming a writer, and was financially supported by Pat during his early years of struggle and poverty. He met with critical success starting with his first two novels, The Mystic Masseur (1957) and Miguel Street (1959), and he received international acclaim for A House for Mr. Biswas, his 1961 novel which is arguably his best. All of these novels were based in the Indian community of Trinidad that was familiar to him from childhood, and Mr. Biswas is a fictionalized representation of his father.

In the early 1960s, due to disillusionment with life in England, he began to travel abroad, and his later fiction, travelogues, and historical accounts were based in these countries, which included Trinidad and other Caribbean nations, India, Argentina, Uganda and Kenya. He cast a critical and unblinking eye upon the developing world; his books and magazine articles were applauded in Europe and the US, but former friends and colleagues from these lands viewed his work with disdain and a sense of betrayal. His notable later works in this middle period include In a Free State, the winner of the 1971 Booker Prize, India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), A Bend in the River (1979), and Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981).

He finally achieved financial success in the 1980s, and he continued to be a productive and controversial writer in this later period. His most notable works were The Enigma of Arrival (1987) and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990).

Pat died of breast cancer in 1996, and very soon afterward he married Nadira, a journalist from Pakistan that he met while Pat was terminally ill. His literary output since Patricia's death has been meager and mediocre, and he wrote his last novel, Magic Seeds, in 2004.

Patrick French, an award winning historian and biographer, was given full access to Mr. Naipaul and his papers and those of his first wife, and this extensively researched biography is the result. It follows 10 years after Paul Theroux's memoir Sir Vidia's Shadow, but French's book is more historically accurate and less personal than Theroux's work.

French describes Naipaul as a man who is a citizen of the world, but one who is lost in the places that he has called home. He was a member of the Indian minority in Trinidad, which became isolated from and polarized against its black majority, particularly after Eric Williams became the country's first prime minister after independence, and his relationships with his parents and siblings were distant and strained. He appeared to be most comfortable in England, but racism, a growing anti-immigrant sentiment and financial difficulty deeply affected and wounded him. He was even less comfortable in India, as he was unable to see the country's beauty and opportunity in the face of its crushing poverty and filth, a pattern that would be repeated in subsequent journeys to other countries. This is described in the first portion of the book, as French effectively portrays Naipaul as a sympathetic but difficult man, and demonstrates how this influenced his writing.

In keeping with his upbringing and rootlessness he was irascible and confrontational, and those closest to him, especially Pat, bore the brunt of his frequent tirades. Naipaul's career would not have been possible without Patricia, who tirelessly served him as a personal aide, confidant, and unpaid editor. However, he was not sexually attracted to her, and he began to seek satisfaction elsewhere, initially with prostitutes, and then in a long standing affair with Margaret Gooding, that destroyed Patricia's spirit once she became aware of it. French provides frequent examples of his dalliances and his difficult relationships throughout the second half of the book. Unfortunately, much of this section becomes gossipy and overly personal, and too many pages are spent in the description of Naipaul's affair.

The biography ends with Patricia's death in 1996, as Nadira moves in with Naipaul the day after the funeral.

The World Is What it Is is a richly detailed biography of Mr. Naipaul, as an author and a deeply flawed human being. The overemphasis on Naipaul's affairs and scandalous personal behavior in the second half of the book was a distraction, which added little to our understanding of the man. I would highly recommend this for those who are interested in Naipaul, but only marginally for everyone else. ( )
5 vote kidzdoc | Jun 16, 2010 |
A lot has been made of how frank this biography is. It’s certainly true that V.S. Naipaul gave his biographer Patrick French access to a huge amount of material, including things that other people would have tried to keep quiet about. For example the racism, the bigotry, the use of prostitutes, the affairs, the betrayals, the occasional violence, the perpetual cruelty. Yes, this is a very frank biography.

But what impressed me most about the book is how French succeeded in making Naipaul into a consistent, understandable character. It doesn’t mean that I like him or approve of the things he did, but it means that I understand how he came to be the way he was. French’s depiction of Naipaul’s life is so complete that I feel as if I know the man now.

Naipaul’s main motivation is established early on in the book. His family life is chaotic, with his whole extended family sharing one large house and constant bickering between the various uncles and aunts. He feels he has to get out of Trinidad, and to do so he devotes all his energy to winning a rare scholarship to study at Oxford. He wins it, moves to England and meets with racism, which intensifies his obsession with working, harder and harder, to show people he’s the best, he’s V.S. Naipaul the writer, not just the wog that they see.

The pattern continues throughout the rest of the book, as Naipaul puts his writing above everything else. He betrays his wife, his family, his friends, the people who help him — he will sacrifice anything to become a great writer. The result is tremendous success, but also extreme loneliness. It’s amazing how, throughout the whole book, there are almost no genuine friendships. Naipaul seems to have lots of connections and acquaintances, but no real friends. He works the literary circles of London, befriending aristocrats and using their spare country houses to get the isolation he needs to work on his books, but when he needs to confide in someone he has no options.

One of the most astonishing passages in the book was when Naipaul was having problems with his long-term mistress, Margaret, and the person he went to for support and advice was his wife Pat! She was the only person he could confide in, and the other astonishing thing was that she let him do it. She knew about Margaret for something like 20 years, and yet she let him run off to Argentina to be with her for a few months, and then come back to her when he needed her again. As with Naipaul himself, Pat’s life became a pattern. Early on, soon after they met at Oxford, Naipaul had a nervous breakdown and it was Pat who supported him and saved him. From that point on, Naipaul controlled her completely, not by force but by using his own frailty as an excuse. He stopped her from pursuing her dream of acting because of his own insecurities, and she let him do it. It’s a fascinating and quite disturbing relationship. Naipaul is both dominant and helpless, using his apparent helplessness to lock Pat into a manipulative relationship. At one point he leaves her, but then returns a few months later saying he needs her help, and yet again she lets him come back. She seems to be willing to do anything to support him and especially, as he has more and more success, his writing. In the diary extracts that French quotes, there’s often a sense that she knows her life is being ruined, but that she has come to share her husband’s view that his writing is so important that everything else must be sacrificed to support what she calls his “Genius”.

There are plenty of examples in this book of pronouncements from V.S. Naipaul that hardly seem worthy of the label “genius”. For instance, writing to his editor Diana Athill, “Lunacy and servility: they remain the ingredients of the Negro character. I wonder why this isn’t written about, why the Negro writers continue to be so sentimental about themselves.” Or talking about the effect of his affair with Margaret on his wife Pat: “I was liberated. She was destroyed. It was inevitable.”

The racism French tries to explain as provocation: Naipaul liking to take extreme positions to provoke a reaction. Some of this is plausible – for example in public appearances or at dinner parties he might want to take on this persona, deliberately aggravating people purely for effect. But there’s no reason to do that in private letters, so I think there’s something more going on. I think it’s bound up with the reason he left Trinidad, the hatred he had learned to feel for the island and, by extension, the majority black population. His family made it clear to him that he should associate with Indians only – one of his cousins recalls the grandmother saying “You can’t associate with niggers.” When Naipaul went to England later, he was anxious to distinguish himself from other Caribbean writers like Sam Selvon and George Lamming. And when Pat tried to help him get a job by appealing to someone in government who helped West Indian immigrants, he said he “would not involve himself with Mr Davies, a latter-day protector of immigrants, nor would he be classified alongside people who climbed off banana boats wearing zoot-suits and wanted jobs in factories. He was V.S. Naipaul, the writer.”

The emotional incapacity is astonishing, too. When Margaret gets pregnant, Naipaul just stops answering her letters. She writes to him in distress, asking for his support, and he does nothing. This happens a couple of times. Later, when Pat is dying of cancer, he is faced with the prospect of being with Margaret finally, and dumps her. He then proposes to Nadira, a woman he met in Pakistan. The day after Pat is cremated, Nadira moves into the house Pat and Naipaul had shared for decades. In his day-to-day life, it’s Pat who has to deal with anything unpleasant, while Naipaul just hides, abdicating responsibility.

It’s interesting, and a little depressing, that Naipaul did not make much money as a writer for a very long time. Even in the 1970s, when he was already a big name and had won the Booker Prize and was writing columns and appearing on TV, he was still only making £7,600 a year, and for many years Pat was supporting him with her teaching work. In the 1980s, partly due to a new agent, his average income jumped to £143,600, and then of course winning the Nobel Prize made him a very rich man. But for a long, long time, even when he was famous, he wasn’t making that much money.

I was surprised that the book ended slightly abruptly, just after Pat’s death in 1996. This also coincides with his marriage to Nadira, so made me wonder if the biography was, in this respect, not completely frank. Perhaps either Naipaul or Nadira refused access to this latest chapter. Or maybe there will be another volume covering his later years – the last word in the book is “Enough”, with a footnote saying “For the moment.” ( )
7 vote AndrewBlackman | Apr 11, 2010 |
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This authorized study of Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul examines his difficult early life as a child of Indian parents in colonial Trinidad, his Oxford education, the depression that marked his life in England, his complex personal life and romantic relationships, and his pursuit of becoming a great writer.

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